Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A hymn to life

Nehad Selaiha discovers a profound need on the part of Egyptians to affirm life notwithstanding the hard times

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The fortunes of play texts and their migrations in place and time are unpredictable, with some enjoying a spell of success on their debut then left to gather dust on forgotten bookshelves, never making it to the stage at all, or doing so centuries later, and others initially hooted off the stage then finding favour years afterwards in their birth place or distant lands. When I read that the Royal Shakespeare Company plans to stage John Ford’s 1620s’  Love’s Sacrifice – a play that has not been seen in Britain since its debut in the 1620s – as part of their summer 2015 season, I wondered why some old, forgotten plays are suddenly revived? Is it nostalgia, a thirst for novelty, an interest in variety, or antiquarian curiosity about the artifacts of the past and the durability of their appeal? Or is it that the old, neglected play has suddenly gained topical resonance in the light of a certain situation, cataclysmic event, or historical change in the present?

Searching for an answer, I chanced upon an article by British director Trevor Nunn in which he explains why he decided to revive Noel Coward’s neglected play Relative Values at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2013. After noting that ‘it It was only in the 20th century, particularly the second half, that the idea of rediscovery, of revisiting the triumphs of a previous age and of reassessing historic reputations, became an essential strand of theatre programming, to the point of becoming quite fundamental to the output of the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the major “centres of excellence” up and down the land,’ he declares that ‘works from the past can seem prescient about our contemporary dilemmas, or burningly relevant, even though the world has changed since they were written.’ There is also the lure of ‘the rediscovery of a neglected masterpiece, the discarded jewel, covered in dust, untouched in centuries, becoming again a burnished glittering gem’, he ads (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/10104430/Trevor-Nunn-Why-Cowards-forgotten-drama-is-a-play-for-our-times.html).

None of the above answers, however, seems to explain why an old, English one-act play of modest artistic value and reputation was picked  for revival at El-Tali’a theatre last month, or why it has proved so popular with Egyptian audiences. J. B. Priestley’s The Rose and Crown is certainly not ‘a neglected masterpiece,’ nor can it be counted among ‘the triumphs of a previous age,’ or said to be ‘prescient about our contemporary dilemmas.’ Originally written as a television play for the BBC (transmitted from Alexandra Palace for the first time on 27 August, 1946) and adapted for the stage by the author himself a year later, The Rose and Crown features an assortment of working-class characters who meet in The Rose and Crown, a small pub in North-East London, one evening in early autumn. They comprise: Mr. Stone, a miserable, grumpy, grumbling plumber in his late 50s; Mrs. Reed, a loquacious, mournful, gossiping middle-aged woman, always complaining about her insides; Percy Randle, a newly married, pessimistic youngman who has trouble with his glands; his wife, Ivy Randle, who is timid and wistful to begin with, but grows more decisive and assertive at the end; Ma Peck, a lonely, bitter old woman with a sharp tongue who, nevertheless has an appetite for life; and the healthy, jovial, happy-go-lucky Harry Tully. Except for Harry and Ivy, all are fed up with life and gloomily grumble about it in between gossiping, ordering drinks from the ever silent Fred, the pub-owner and barman, and bickering among themselves.

Suddenly, a Stranger arrives in their midst to declare in a matter-of-fact tone that he has been sent from on high to collect a quota of people who are to meet their maker that day, but, unfortunately, due to a mix-up, he is one short. On overhearing how tired of life most of them are, he has decided to offer one of them the chance to make up the shortfall. When no one comes forward and they have to choose which one goes, suddenly everyone finds they have a reason to live and starts pointing the finger at who they think should go. Ivy would go if her husband could come along too, but the Stranger needs only one. At the end, it is Harry who volunteers to go, though he has never complained of life and has been trying to sooth and cheer up the rest all evening. Though the Stranger (who reminds one of Inspector Goole in Priestley’s earlier, full-length drama An Inspector Calls) brings into the play an element of mystery and suspense, The Rose and Crown has never made it to mainstream theatre in Britain as far as I know, and has strictly remained in amateur circles. Significantly, when it was first introduced in Egypt in 1963, in a translation by Kamel Saleeb, it was published in a book bearing the title One-act Plays for Amateurs. Since then, it was directed once for Cairo Radio 2 by Mohamed Ali El-Sharqawi, but was never attempted on the professional stage until this year.  

With next to no publicity, El-Tali’a production of The Rose and Crown has been playing to full houses since it opened on 20 May, frequently giving two performances per evening instead of the usual one to accommodate audiences. Such phenomenal success needs explaining and can be accounted for partly by the overall technical excellence of the show and partly by a coincidence of mood or zeitgeist between the British audiences the play was written for in the immediate postwar years and the Egyptian audiences who watch this production after the January 25 revolution. Indeed, the current mood in Egypt now is not dissimilar to the one that prevailed in Britain after the end of the World War II, with many Egyptians feeling weary and disillusioned and a few trying to hold on to hope and be cheerful. To celebrate life in the face of adversity, to be told that it is beautiful, valuable and worth living despite all hardships and disappointments is what the British TV viewers the play addressed in 1946 needed, and it is exactly what most Egyptians seem to need at present. And it is this need that the makers of the Egyptian version of The Rose and Crown, who equally felt it, meant to address and successfully met.

The adaptation of the play, by Yaser Abul Enein, with contributions from the director, Basem Qenawi, and the cast, sought to strengthen the message of the original play, underline its current relevance and give it more depth, credibility and emotive power. This entailed some excisions, alterations and additions. Though the classical Arabic dialogue of Saleeb’s translation was kept, it was extensively rephrased to improve its quality, remove unwieldy sentences, clumsy words, or awkward expressions and generally infuse it with the spirit and rhythms of everyday speech. To bring the play nearer home, all references to the postwar period when the play was written, like the scarcity of certain goods – metal pipes and port, among other things, the black market – or the memory of air raids, were removed. Bits of the dialogue, which are truly irrelevant, were removed all together, a few were transposed to other places, or given to a different character, while the quarrelsome exchanges between Stone and Reed, and Reed and Ma Peck were more sharply accentuated, or developed into noisy rows and hilarious slanging matches, increasing the dose of comedy in the play.

Indeed, in the first part of the play, before the Stranger arrives, the original dialogue was touched up everywhere to bring out its comic potential and exploit it to the full, simultaneously highlighting basic traits in the characters. For instance, maddened by Mrs. Reed’s persistent complaining of his neglect to fit her bathroom drain with a new pipe and nettled by her veiled abusive references to plumbers she pretends to have read about in the papers, Stone responds with a story about a new virus which particularly attacks the tongues of garrulous, gossipy women, and another about a plumber who murdered his client, cut off her leg, emptied out its contents and used it as a pipe. Another example is making Percy respond to Mrs. Reed’s complaint about her stomach by relating the long medical history of his sister, who started with a similar complaint, which turns the response from a sympathetic one to an ominous prediction of the dreadful fate that awaits her. A third example is when Harry, after ordering drinks all round, is made to ask the barman to add them to his unpaid bills, promising to pay him in two months time, thus adding a comic tail end to the invitation and at the same time revealing his straitened financial situation and selfless generosity – details that will prove dramatically important in the adaptation. One can go on giving examples, for, indeed, they can be found at every step and in connection with all the characters, including even the Stranger.

More importantly, however, the adaptation improved on Priestley’s original, rather flat characterization, typical of morality plays. By making all the characters working class people, Priestly relied mainly on reproducing their cockney speech to make them life-like. Since this could not be reproduced in translation, especially into classical Arabic, and the use of Egyptian colloquial Arabic as the nearest equivalent, apart from being deeply problematic, would never suit the subject of the play or the purposes of the adaptation, the characters were socially upgraded to the middle classes (and dressed accordingly in the performance), and the adaptor concentrated on filling them out and giving credible causes for their dissatisfaction with life.

In the Egyptian version, Mrs. Reed becomes an aged singer, out of work and favour, and pining to be heard once more. Since no one will employ her, singing in the pub becomes her only outlet, as she confesses. Besides giving the character depth and rendering her more sympathetic, particularly when she poignantly describes the effect of long neglect and lack of exposure on a performing artist, recreating Mrs. Read as singer allowed director Basem Qenawi to introduce a musical element in the play in an organic, unobtrusive way. He made her open the performance with an appropriate, well-known, English song and roped in Mohamed El-Zanati  to rewrite her words about her lack of happiness and the drabness of her life into lyrics, which composer Hatem Ezzat put to music. But though Mrs. Reed gains in depth and sympathy, she does not lose her comic dimension. Instead of Reed, the adaptation calls her Red and allows Ma Peck to mock and tease her by using the Arabic word for the name and stressing its scabrous innuendoes. Ma Peck, in her turn, is given a second husband, whom she also buries, and gains both in sympathy and comedy when she is made to say that though twice a widow, she has never fallen in love and still hopes and longs for it.

The rest of the characters are similarly developed: Mr. Stone becomes a father shamefully neglected and deserted by his children in his old age; Percy Randle’s gloom is not a pose; he is truly pessimistic and distrustful of life and keeps postponing having children despite his wife’s yearning for them; the cheerful, hearty Harry Tully is not hale, but has a weak heart and cannot marry the girl he loves for lack of money. Moreover, Harry becomes in this adaptation a dramatic agent effecting real change in the dissatisfied, grumbling characters. On the night they all meet, his beloved is getting married to another. Stone is made to hurl this fact in his face before the others when he chides him for being merry. Like the rest of them, Stone tells him, he has his troubles and therefore every reason to hate life. Harry responds by pointing out to them that even pain can be enjoyable, being part of the meaning of life. He teaches Stone that his children are a blessing even though they neglect him; reveals to Percy the joys of parenthood despite all difficulties; and urges Mrs. Reed to keep on singing for the pure joy of it, even when no body wants to listen to her. That the characters have heeded his gentle preaching is revealed at the end of the play in their pleading with the stranger to let them go on living. This obviously improves on Priestley’s original structure by creating a logical link between the attitudes of the characters at the beginning of the play and at its end and providing the characters with better reasons to cling to life more than mere fear of death.

In the original play, when Harry volunteers to go with the Stranger, reassuring Ivy, the only person who fiercely opposes his decision, that he is the destined one and that the Stranger knew it all along, the Stanger, who is only deputizing for the Angel of Death who only appears to Harry at the end, says that before he checked with his boss to confirm that Harry was the intended person, he had had a pretty good guess that it might be him. Why? Because only those, like Harry, who have enjoyed life are willing to die; the others, ‘who fear life, can neither live nor love it, but they cling to it all the same because they fear death even more.’ He concludes both his harangue and the play with the rather trite dictum: ‘If life is a rose, death is its crown.’

In other words, the original play leaves the characters at the end just as we found them at the beginning, fearing life, but fearing death even more. This means that no dramatic change has taken place anywhere because there was no dramatic interaction or conflict to begin with. The adaptation, which mercifully ignores the final ‘Rose and Crown’ metaphor, enshrined in the title, rechristening the play Rooh (Soul), in reference to the soul the Stranger arrives to take, and which also does away with all the rigmarole about death being like a bureaucratic organization with departments and an administrative staff, with carefully assigned duties and assistants, provides a more positive, more dramatic conclusion, and a moving, uplifting one at that. Here, the Stranger has more dignity and more sympathy for humans; he has known the person he has come for from the start and has only meant to drive the lesson Harry tried to teach them home and make them clearly realize how much they have to live for. At the end, when Harry asks him if he is going to get him through his weakest spot, meaning his ailing heart, the Stranger corrects him: ‘through your purest spot.’

I have spoken extensively about the adaptation of The Rose and Crown because it was the basis on which director Basem Qenawi, who guided and often contributed to it, built his amazingly popular production. But Mohamed Gaber’s brilliant set, which meticulously reproduced the look of an English pub, transforming the whole of the small hall at El-Tali’a theatre into one, and seating the audience all round it at small tables, or on seats in between the three acting areas, with a few at the bar, provided the right atmosphere, feel and ambience for the adaptation. Imaginatively lighted by Abu Bakr El-Sherif, it was a major attraction and vastly contributed to the show’s appeal. Mohamed El-Zanati’s lyrics and Hatem Ezzat’s tunes, which when not sung, provided soft background music in certain scenes, were also instrumental in shaping the performance and intensifying the emotional impact of the final scenes, carrying the message directly to the heart of the audience and leaving everybody, actors and spectators, in tears.

Assisted by this magnificent artistic crew, Basem Qenawi was able to frame his actors to best advantage and get the best imaginable out of them. Indeed, Fatma Mohamed Ali, originally a singer turned actress, was superb as Mrs. Reed, moving smoothly from comedy to pathos and vividly portraying the character’s ridiculous pettiness and artificial posing, as well as her very real suffering and the anguish of her soul. Her beautiful, powerful voice, which the director used to best advantage, was an added bonus. As Mr. Stone, Yaser Ezzat respected the stereotype in which the character is cast, but somehow managed to individualize it, making it his own and, therefore, very convincing and lifelike. Without once relinquishing his morose, dismayed facial expression, he could move the audience to tears when speaking about his children and make them roar with laughter at his comments, interjections and conversation with the other characters. His was a performance of a real master of the thespian art. Another dazzling, virtuoso performance was Lubna Wanas’s as Ma Peck. She was superb both as the frail, lonely old woman and the vain, unbridled fury, and in the merry-making scenes that precede the appearance of the Stranger, she made a charmingly childish duo with Fathi Salem as the innocent-looking and irresistibly loveable Harry. Mohamed Yusef and Samah Selim, as Percy and Ivy Randle, also gave vivid, intelligent performances, paying great attention to rhythm, pitch and tone, and to movement, posture and attitude. Grimly clad in black from top to toe, Ahmed El-Raf’’i, as the Stranger, spread a halo of awe around him. Though he consistently moved softly, spoke quietly, always wearing a benign, kind expression on his face, he powerfully suggested an alien presence, at once mysterious, fearful and irresistibly attractive. Indeed, every single performance in this production, including Hassan Nooh’s as the ever silent barman who offers the audience drinks of red grape juice at the beginning, then supports the actors’ performances in mime, was of value and contributed to making it the great success it is and a glorious hymn to life. Isn’t amazing that a play rediscovered in a foreign land seventy years after it was written can acquire such relevance and achieve such success?

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